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Global Responsibility and the Shortfall of International Policy

January 05, 2009

Recently there has been plenty of attention given to the issue of humanitarian crisis, intervention and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) at the global level. The R2P, which was originally articulated in 2001 by a commission created and supported by the government of Canada, is designed to articulate and enforce what terms like sovereignty, human security and global responsibility actually mean and just how short the international community has fallen in its efforts to protect vulnerable populations worldwide.

One of the authors of the original R2P document, Michael Ignatieff, argues that the debates surrounding intervention were fashionable throughout the 1990s in the wake of the Cold War, but that the grim present of international politics tells us we are still nowhere near being able to claim success for the R2P in either its normative or political sense. In light of the apparent failure of Canada and the U.N. to implement and use R2P, perhaps it is time to question in a more pragmatic way just why human rights are not driving foreign policy creation and the consequences of this ignorance.

The current situations in the Darfur province of Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and elsewhere effectively demonstrate the human insecurity which continues to plague international society. Canada has admonished these governments for their abuse of human rights, as has the United Nations.

Each of these nations are in desperate need of global attention and perhaps even intervention according to the stipulations of the R2P, as included in the 2001 report and the 2005 U.N. document, yet the United Nations has elected instead to place its weight and limited financial resources behind regional organizations, like the African Union, or is sending diplomats to urge change, knowing that none will come.

From the knowledge that genocide and human rights abuses have occurred since 1945, and transpire to this present, there is a fact that is very clear the United Nations, and Canada, are not willing to make the normative shift necessary to operationalize the R2P and enforce human security.

Invoking arguments about national and international obligations is not merely an ethical issue. Prof. Marco Sassoli and Dr. Siobhan Wills have pointed out that R2P represents a fundamental change from states choosing intervention, to states having the responsibility under international law to prevent egregious human rights violations. This legal argument emphasizes that R2P is intended to remind and encourage states to live up to their responsibilities rather than have the most powerful nations select when and where humanitarian law will be enforced.

It is difficult to argue against the need for normatively driven policy like R2P on the basis of protecting humanity, but why is it that we still have not seen a shift from nations like Canada or from the United Nations? A major concern that tends to be overlooked in these discussions is the threat to international order and the system of states posed by ethically responsible policies.

The first problem facing the implementation of ethically-driven foreign policy is that there appears to be no universal, consensus-based concept of international responsibility. Secondly, there is potential for a state to alter or sacrifice its power position within the society of states, as seen by the decline in American military and economic strength since its 2003 invasion of Iraq. Third, interventionism and human security are not consistent with the foundational rules of international institutions like the United Nations, namely collective security and national sovereignty.

Finally enforcement of any such ethic is virtually impossible and undesirable due to the long-term implications of intervention and peacebuilding, evidenced by the increasing displeasure among Canadian politicians and citizens alike regarding the mission in Afghanistan. As a result of these factors, along with a number of others, the R2P has remained purely rhetorical in nature in favor of states basing their national security decisions upon traditional, power-based, concerns.

There is also need to consider what happens if R2P is never practiced. Ignatieff reminds us that the desire for humanitarian intervention still exists, but the resources needed for such missions have dissipated. When policies like the R2P get ignored, it is not a series of abstract political concerns which get forgotten; instead, we see the consequences of not acting on R2P in the daily statistics released which tell the sad story of death, injury and terror among populations from various regions across the world. The human costs of present Canadian and U.N. policy are vast, and there is potential for human insecurity to increase due to the rise of global health, financial, security and environmental crises.

The rhetoric surrounding human security and the reports which advocate it can, sadly, only be seen as theory at this juncture. Issues threatening humanity need to be addressed with a sense of immediacy, and the current approaches at the state and global institutional levels are failing in this capacity. Canada and the United Nations more broadly must finally answer whether they are serious about global responsibility and policies like the R2P, or if they will continue to enforce the status quo of upholding order and relative peace, while guaranteeing Westphalian sovereignty.

At present, the international community continues to operate as it always has, with national sovereignty being exalted, traditional security concerns being the driving ideas behind foreign policy creation, power being calculated based on military and economic factors, and a basic set of rules which govern state-to-state cooperation.

While the end of the Cold War may have brought with it a sense of idealism and opportunity in the humanitarian intervention debate, reality dictates that in order for states to maintain or increase their position in the international system, they cannot base their foreign policy strategies on concepts like human security.

To do so would require a global consensus and international willingness to implement the normative elements of the R2P. At present, this is simply not the case and thus humanity will continue to suffer while the international community does nothing.


Robert W. Murray is a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship holder in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. Hon. David Kilgour, J.D., is a former Canadian Secretary of State for Africa and Latin America (1997-2002) and Asia-Pacific (2002-2003).

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